National day celebrations have become a crucial element in the ongoing construction of Saudi Arabia’s national narrative, highlighting the centrality of the ruling family and its legacy in the establishment of the state.
Over the past few weeks in Syria, there have been three distinct bursts of activity that serve as reminders of the broader strategic stalemate as the conflict drags on. On January 31, Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Al Busaidi met with Syria President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the most recent in a series of ministerial-level visits the Omanis have made to the Syrian capital since the conflict began a decade ago. The visit is emblematic of Oman’s foreign policy focus on respect for sovereignty and cool neutrality; other Gulf states’ Syria policies have corrected in this direction over the past several years.
Further Activity, Little Progress
The Busaidi visit comes after Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan met with Assad in Damascus in November 2021. On top of these visits, there have been meetings reported between the Saudi and Syrian intelligence chiefs. And in the past few years, the Bahraini, Omani, and Emirati ambassadors have returned to Damascus. However, Syria remains in long-term suspension from the Arab League, and U.S. opposition, with European Union support, seems to have blocked any broader diplomatic normalization with countries beyond the Gulf.
The threat of U.S. and EU sanctions also prevents reconstruction aid from flowing in. Despite the sanctions risks, an Emirati minister recently pointed to the United Arab Emirates’ status as Syria’s most important global trading partner, with $272 million in non-oil trade in the first half of 2021. (The sanctions in the United States’ Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act that target third-country trade with Syria are heavily focused on transactions that involve support for the Syrian government or its senior officials.)
United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen visited Damascus in December 2021 hoping for some progress that would at least allow for a reconvening of the nearly moribund Constitutional Committee, part of the U.N.-facilitated effort that seeks to amend or rewrite the Syrian Constitution in the context of a political solution for Syria. However, in January, he briefed the U.N. Security Council that there was a “strategic stalemate” in Syria.
ISIL Attack on Hasaka Prison Points to New Norm, Old Pattern
On the outskirts of the northeastern city of Hasaka in late January, Syrian Democratic Forces, with tactical and intelligence support from U.S. special operations forces, defeated fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant who attacked Sinaa prison trying to free the 4,000 to 5,000 of their fellow combatants detained there. The bloody 10-day fight left some 500 people dead, including 374 fighters and prisoners linked to ISIL, 121 SDF soldiers and prison guards, and four civilians, according to a senior SDF officer. Media accounts indicate hundreds of detained ISIL fighters escaped; the SDF officer confirmed that 3,800 ISIL prisoners have been recaptured.
The attack on the prison is a reminder of key toxic legacies in Syria from the 2014-17 battlefield fight to defeat the so-called caliphate: 10,000 detained ISIL fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters, most of whose countries of origin have refused to repatriate them (there were reportedly 20 foreign nationalities in Sinaa prison); a ramshackle string of former schools and abandoned factory compounds in northeast Syria serving as makeshift prisons; and 60,000-plus wives and children of these fighters, housed in Al Hol camp since 2019. The attack also points to the persistent pattern of ISIL efforts to free its detained fighters, given that escapes immediately and forcefully strengthen its ranks (and to cobbled together but eventually effective SDF responses).
Another ISIL Leader Taken Out
The third key recent development is the February 3 raid in northwest Syria by U.S. special operations forces that ended in the death of the head of ISIL, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, who blew himself up to avoid capture. A key deputy and several family members were also killed. Qurayshi, a former Iraqi military officer, assumed his leadership position in ISIL after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, detonated a suicide vest killing himself following a similar raid by U.S. forces in October 2019, also in northwestern Syria.
Plus Ça Change … the More the Counterterrorism Front Stays the Same
These new developments, taken together, are a stark reminder that the more things change in Syria, the more they revert to the tragic mean. While this ISIL attack on the prison is the most serious engagement with the SDF and U.S. forces since the 2019 territorial defeat of ISIL, it still falls within the general spectrum of ISIL resurgence efforts countered by U.S. and SDF counterterrorism efforts. The raid against Qurayshi likewise represents one more in a long series of such leadership decapitation efforts that will certainly continue in northwest and northeast Syria (and elsewhere).
Pattern of Stasis Remains
The moving parts in international diplomacy related to Syria are more intricate, but there is still the same “reversion to mean” pattern: Diplomatic efforts in general have gone nowhere since the beginning of the conflict. Assad has survived and with him a regime legacy of war crimes and bloodletting that tends to stop in its tracks any diplomatic initiative in the West aimed at resolving the conflict or even realistically conceptualizing a path forward.
The majority Gulf diplomatic position seems to involve four key elements: a realpolitik assessment that the war is over, with Assad in control, and that serious statecraft must be cognizant of the realities; deep distrust of the chaos, jihadi militancy, and failed-state aspects that have come to characterize the conflict; relative minimizing of the importance of – or viewing the prospects unlikely for – holding Assad and his regime accountable for the grisly violence they systematically used to regain control of the country; and finally, strengthening ties with Syria (and seeking its reintegration in the Arab world) to counter Iran’s influence. For the time being, Saudi Arabia has remained aloof from this Gulf effort (as has Qatar, for different reasons). Any shift toward more engagement by Saudi Arabia with Damascus will be key to Gulf states pushing for greater normalization.
Biden Policy: Polite Strategic Patience … With a Sanctions Stick
The current Syria policy of the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. politely, but effectively, checkmates these Gulf strategic impulses, emphasizing maintenance of the United States’ counter-ISIL troop presence, large-scale humanitarian support, regime accountability, and tough economic sanctions. Action at Sinaa prison and the Qurayshi raid make clear the administration will continue to support the SDF in the fight against ISIL resurgence in the northeast and take unilateral action in a much broader geographic area to target ISIL leadership. Caesar sanctions make it nearly impossible for reconstruction assistance to flow into Syria and risky for Gulf investment. The issue of regime accountability – in tandem with U.S. opposition – remains a powerful drag on further normalization momentum.
Humanitarian Assistance an Unlikely Achilles’ Heel
A possible Achilles’ heel for the U.S. administration’s Syria policy is the emphasis on humanitarian support. The assistance is vital to millions of Syrians living in poverty and food insecurity, amid a collapsed Syrian economy. The vulnerability arises because the regime and its Russian backers do not share the concern; they will continue to seek to exploit it to break or at least circumvent what they view as U.S. sanctions pressure blocking reconstruction and investment, and diplomatic pressure preventing normalization. The next opportunity for Russia to chip away at this U.S. blocking effort will be in July when Security Council Resolution 2585, authorizing the U.N. to move humanitarian assistance through the northwest Bab al-Hawa crossing, comes up for renewal. Bab al-Hawa is the sole remaining artery for cross-border delivery of assistance. All other U.N. assistance for Syria must come in through Damascus, where the regime and its empowered institutions, like the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, are able to exert substantial pressure on the delivery of assistance – through granting or withholding humanitarian access to particular areas of the country or preventing independent needs assessments and monitoring – to try to reward the loyal, punish formerly rebel areas, and enrich the few. Russia, using cross-border renewal deliberations, is likely to play on the concerns of fellow Security Council members fearful of having all U.N. humanitarian assistance delivered through Damascus to squeeze out concessions prying open the way for further “early recovery” projects, a precursor to reconstruction assistance. An eventual Russian (and Chinese) refusal to renew the resolution would give the regime even greater sources of leverage to apply on this humanitarian assistance aspect of U.S. Syria policy.
Reversion to Tragic Mean
The conflict in Syria has witnessed countless eruptions of violence, multiple, often competing international diplomatic initiatives and bilateral normalization efforts, a parallel, complex fight against ISIL, and multiple other developments and actions that seem to promise change and movement. But the tragic, stalemated realities reassert themselves each time. It’s a reversion to the tragic mean all over again.
is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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